Monday, January 17, 2011

Confusion of Names / Parshat Yitro

In the medical world, drugs usually have several names: the generic name and the trade name. For example cephalexin is sold by the trade name Keflex; Levaquin is levofloxacin; and Ritalin is methylphenidate. This is confusing to many people. Equally confusing, and extremely dangerous, are similar names for different drugs. Keeping names straight can be a matter of life and death. An 8-year-old died when given methadone rather than methylphenidate (Ritalin). The FDA reported five deaths of patients given edetate disodium (which causes a severe decrease in blood calcium levels) instead of edetate calcium disodium (for treating lead poisoning).

Parshat Yitro also includes multiple names for people and places. Moses’ father-in-law is known by many names: Jethro (our parashah is named Yitro after him). When we first meet him (Exodus 2:16-18) he is known as Reuel, the priest of Midian, father of Tzipporah, generous host to Moses who is fleeing Egypt. Following Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Horeb, (elsewhere called Mt. Sinai) he returns to his father-in-law Jeter (Yeter, Exodus 4:18), who is called Jethro (Yitro) in the very next verse. In Numbers 10:29 Moses’ father-in-law is identified as Hobab (Chovav) son of Reuel (suggesting to some that Exodus 2:18 refers to Tzipporah’s grandfather, Reuel, not to her father Yitro/Yeter/Hobab), but that is a stretch.

Are you thoroughly confused yet? Then ignore everything above and focus on this:

Torah juxtaposes the horrors imposed by the Egyptians in pursuit of the Israelites after enslaving them for four centuries with the kindness of Jethro and his people toward the Israelites. The contrast is stark and unmistakable. While some strangers are cruel, others are kind. But consider just the Midianites: what are we to make of the contrast between the Midianites (Genesis 37:28) whose caravan carted Joseph off to slavery in Egypt (or was it the Ishmaelites? See Genesis 37:25 and also verse 38!) and the clan of Yitro in the generation of Moses? Here we see that Midianites can be ruthless strangers or close kin. (And just to add to the fun, Torah tells us that it is a Midianite woman who consorts with an Israelite man in the Tabernacle (Numbers 25:6) leading to Phinehas’ glorified vigilantism – yet she is actually a Moabite if we read Numbers 25:1.)

What is going on here? Is there a confusion of names? Are we seeing the result of centuries of oral transmission and the confusion and changes that naturally creep into oral accounts? No doubt that is part of the explanation.

Standing at a distance of more than 2500 years, what are we to make of these accounts? Perhaps these passages in Torah can serve to remind us that when it comes to people, names are identifiers, but should never be used as blanket labels. In the world of medicine, a name is a definer, and should be taken as such: it is what it is called. But not so people. We often want to brand people “good” or “evil” and reduce them to a single adjective, rather than view them in all their complexity. We often want to brand an entire nation in a similarly simplistic fashion, as has been done too often in history. We Jews, who are often branded in this way, should know how wrong this is.

This week our nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We set aside time to memorialize a man who taught our nation to view people as individuals, not merely anonymous units in a broader ethnicity bearing bigoted labels. In 1963, Rev. King said,
Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true. (“Strength to Love” speech)
I believe that Rev. King’s uplifting words from the “I Have a Dream Speech” are the message behind the confusion of names in our parashah:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Torah wants us to not judge all Midianites as enemies because a caravan of Midianites took Joseph into Egypt, but to recall that it was Jethro, the priest of Midian, who gave Moses save harbor and his daughter’s hand in marriage, and who designed the Israelites system of judicial administration to assure justice for all in the wilderness. Each Midianite is as unique as each Israelite.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, which he noted was deeply rooted in the American dream, is also deeply rooted in the Jewish dream: that all people will be judged by their integrity and deeds, not by our narrow bigotries, and that the goodness of every individual will be recognized and valued. If we can do this, then, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said 47 years ago on the steps of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
…this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Now that’s good medicine by any name.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Debbie Friedman z"l / Parshat B'Shallach

This coming Shabbat we will chant Shirat HaYam, the song of Redemption our ancestors sang at the shore of the Reed Sea so long ago. Torah tells us that Moses and all Israel sang the song recorded in chapter 15 of Exodus, a joyous and jubilant expression of relief, survival, and hope. And then Torah tells us that Miriam and the women took timbrels in hand and sang their own song. Very little of it is preserved in the Torah – only the first line. We can only wonder what they sang.

Or perhaps we need not wonder. The modern day Miriam, Debbie Friedman z”l, a sweet singer of Israel, was buried today. Seven thousands people around the world watched her funeral as it was streamed live from Temple Beth Sholom in California. Thousands more – tens of thousands – know the spiritual magic of her music, which has transformed the worship in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and yes, Orthodox and Hasidic, synagogues. For many, Debbie Friedman’s music is the missing Song of Miriam and the Women. Debbie, perhaps more than anyone else, taught North American Jews how to sing to God, how to open our hearts in song, how to capture and express healing and hope, continuity and community.

But it’s more than her magical music. Despite illness and debilitation, Debbie continually affirmed God’s goodness and power to heal the human soul (if not always the human body). Rabbi Stuart Kelman recounted that Debbie composed music for Elohai n’shama she’natata bi, a prayer from the morning liturgy exalting the purity of the human soul, as well as music for Asher Yatzar, the prayer preceding it that thanks God for the most banal of bodily functions (composing the latter tune on the spot) so they would harmonize with one another, and could even be sung as a round. Our Rabbis rejected the Hellenistic idea that superior and desirable soul, and inferior and vulgar body are separate and in opposition to one another. Rather, Judaism revels in physical existence (if placing limits on human behavior) and affirms that how we live our embodied lives – doing acts of tzedakah and chesed, loving and healing one another, and singing praises to God – is blessed and approved by God. Debbie’s songs reflect a divine melding of body and soul, a spiritual expression so sweet I’m sure it makes the angels sing.

“Miriam’s Song” is among Debbie Friedman’s most famous. It is sung on Shabbat Shira in synagogues and minyanim across the country, and at seder tables round the world each Pesach. The Rabbis taught (Megillah 10b) that when Moses led the Israelites in song, the ministering angels in heaven wanted to join in, but God silenced them because the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea. I suspect, however, that the angels sang with our modern-day Miriam, Debbie, her songs of healing and hope.

To Debbie’s family (and particularly to her Aunt Erline with whom I spent this past weekend) I extend my deepest condolences. To Jews worldwide, who mourn her deeply as well, may her songs continue to offer you hope and inspiration. And to Debbie, sweet singer of Israel, may your own words accompany you to the place God has prepared for you:
Lechi lach to a land that I will show you
Lech li-cha to a place you do not know
Lechi lach on your journey I will bless you
And you shall be a blessing, you shall be a blessing
You shall be a blessing lechi lach
Yehi zichrona livracha – may her name be a blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hard Heart / Parshat Bo

Parshat Bo recounts the final three plagues against Egypt: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn). Inserted between ninth and final plagues is an excursion from the narrative to describe the soon-to-be annual pesach sacrifice and Feast of unleavened bread.

Our parashah opens with these troubling words:
Then God said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers in order that I may display My signs among them, and that you my recount in the hearing of your sons and of your son’s sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:1-2)
These verses inspire many questions. Among them: If God wants Pharaoh to release the Israelites, why does God harden his heart? Isn’t this counter-productive? If God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, doesn’t this impinge upon his free will? If Pharaoh’s decisions are under the control of God, why does God punish Pharaoh and all Egypt? We might even ask about the enormous cost -- economic ruin, suffering, and death – at which Israel’s redemption was purchased.

The words, recount in the hearing of your sons and of your son’s sons… foreshadow the instructions to remember the Exodus and recount it yearly in a festive and ritualistic manner, precisely as Exodus 12:1-28 instructs. The suggestion here is that God is orchestrating a cataclysmic showdown between God and Pharaoh, an event so big, so public, and so dramatic that neither the Israelites nor the Egyptians – who have been told that Pharaoh is a god – can ignore reality or misinterpret the meaning of the events they witness: God is the sole power in the universe while Pharaoh is merely a tyrant.

Yet God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is troubling from both a philosophical and a moral perspective. Philosophically, if people are endowed with free will, God cannot or does not interfere with it. Morally, if God were to constrict or void free will, how do we explain the ensuing suffering? Is God’s desire to provide incontrovertible evidence of divine power over Pharaoh a sufficient explanation? Religiously, why does God seek to make a mockery of Egyptians, given that humiliating others is against Jewish law?

The Rabbis, too, were troubled by Torah’s assertion that God manipulated Pharaoh. In Bereishit Rabbah 13:3 we read:

For I have hardened his heart (Exodus 10:1). R. Yochanan said: Doesn’t this provide heretics with grounds for claiming that he [Pharaoh] had no means for repenting, since it says, For I have hardened his heart? To which R. Shimon b. Lakish replied: let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up. If it concerns the scorners, He scorns them (Proverbs 3:34). When God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then God closes his heart against repentance so that He should not exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he took no notice, God then said, “You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart, so I will add to your uncleanness.” Hence, For I have hardened his heart. What does hikbadti (“I hardened”) imply? That God made his heart like a liver (kabed) into which even if boiled a second time no juice enters. So also was the heart of Pharaoh made like a liver, and he did not receive the words of God. Hence, For I have hardened his heart.
What is R. Shimon b. Lakish telling us? He is saying that God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to extract revenge and justify plague and punishment. Rather, people who have had the opportunity to repent numerous times and do not, become mired in their ways and can no longer change. Erich Fromm made this point:
Every evil act tends to harden a man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good deed tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more he is determined by previous action. But there comes a point of no return when man’s heart has become to hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom. (Erich Fromm, You Shall Be as Gods, p. 81)
It is not God who annulled or contravened Pharaoh’s free will. It is Pharaoh who relinquished his free will by refusing to consider the moral ramifications of his decisions, by refusing to consider compassion rather than cruelty, by relentlessly pursuing a path of destruction.

The response – perhaps the only response – is hinted at by the excursion Torah takes to instruct us concerning the annual celebration of Pesach: come together in groups, remember what happened here, ask questions, tell the story. Each telling will be inspired by the questions asked by children, whose questions are penetrating, brutally honest, and who neither entertain nor tolerate moral ambiguity and hypocrisy. Each telling will address the recurrent problem of tyrants who deny the freedom of others, brutality that demeans human beings and diminishes the image of God in the world. The need for and Redemption is ever-present in our individual lives and in our world. We do not expect it to float down from heaven, but rather come through our grit and determination, the work of our hands, and product of our joint efforts with others. God provides the vision, motivation, fuel, and support. We provide the muscle.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman